LABELS: Berlin Classics
PERFORMER: John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Michael George (bass), Catherine Denley (mezzo-soprano), Christiane Oelze, Julia Gooding (sopranos), Axel Köhler (countertenor)RIAS Chamber Choir, Academy of Ancient Music, Berlin/Marcus Creed
CATALOGUE NO: BC 1057-2 DDD
Jephtha, first performed in 1752, was Handel’s last major work, written while he was struggling with poor health and failing eyesight. Yet the score contains some of his most powerful and moving music, notably the chorus’s bleak paean to blind faith, ‘How dark, O Lord, are Thy decrees!’ Jephtha is also one of his more operatic oratorios and, if many Baroque operas require the suspension of disbelief, this libretto (by Thomas Morell) may need modern listeners to suspend their distaste at the perversities of its 18th-century pietism. Handel’s wonderfully humane music cuts through all such sanctimony, however, as if – as the Handel scholar Winton Dean has argued – in highlighting the themes of personal suffering and capricious fate, Handel implicitly ‘makes Jehovah the villain of the piece’.
This new recording, under the direction of Marcus Creed, is generally very fine, if a touch monochromatic. Soprano Christiane Oelze, as Iphis, is outstanding in a team of experienced Handelian soloists. John Mark Ainsley makes a rather lightweight Jephtha, though his only really bad moment is a hurried ‘Waft her, angels’ that misses the aria’s tender anguish. Still, the splendid 1988 Philips recording, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, remains my preferred version, not least for the magnificent singing of the Monteverdi Choir. Graham Lock